The Geekification of Everything?

It's a good time to be a geek. By all accounts we won the culture war; Geeks have conquered the world. But maximum geek is coming, and it's steadily going to pillage our nostalgia, overwhelm us with superheroes, and ruin our games. Are we ready to pay the price?

[h=3]The Era of Geek Chic[/h]
Jason Tocci's 2009 dissertation, "Geek Cultures: Media and Identity in the Digital Age" sums up the era of the geek:

The emergence of ‘geek chic' represents a sort of culmination (or, according to some, perhaps the undoing) of a process that has been years in the making: the development of "geek culture" as a collective identity. This concept of the geek –the tech-savvy, pop-culture-obsessed, socially-awkward misfit and underdog – emerges during a confluence of developments in consumer capitalism and communication in American culture over the course of the late 20' century. Geek identity today is largely a product of rigid status hierarchies in schools, a collective affinity for entertainment widely dismissed as juvenile, and a new network of digital communication that makes it easier than ever before to recognize a sense of commonality with other geeks.

Pervasive geekdom is not a fad, it's the new normal:

The truth is, we're all nerds--and not just the people reading these words on a video game website. What once made up the exclusive domain of nerdery has gradually filtered its way into the fabric of everyday life. We all grew up with and regularly use computers. Most of us carry a device in our pockets that can access an entire Internet's worth of information at any given time. We obsess and fixate over television shows, movies, and superheroes with an intensity once reserved for comic book store regulars. The fanatical Star Wars fan of the past is now just one of untold millions who enjoys what might be the most popular media franchise in the world.

As geekdom grows up, it will eventually have to face all the issues that come with being popular. And that means dealing with the positive and negative consequences of being the dominant force in pop culture. As a result, geek nostalgia is on the decline. ICv2 columnist Rob Salkowitz explains why:

The declining importance of nostalgia is one of the great generational dividing lines between 20th and 21st century fandom. There are all kinds of reasons for this. Information that used to be hard to come by (and thus precious) is now abundant, leading, among other things, to the trivialization of trivia as an area of fan expertise. Accessible mass-media adaptations of comics, SF and fantasy properties have supplanted the texts as authoritative sources for a great many newer fans. High quality reproductions of classic works are now so abundant that it’s hard to differentiate or focus appreciation in the same way as it was when there was a huge cost in effort and money to track down scarce original issues.

My previous article discussed how we're now fighting for space at geek-friendly conventions. But if we’re being honest about it, geeks and nerds have been riding a cultural high for some time now. Having too many geeks at a con may be aggravating but by all accounts it's a good time to be a geek. Why ruin the buzz?

[lq]Blame Simon Pegg.[/lq]
[h=3]Beam Me Up Scotty, There’s Too Many Geeks Down Here[/h]
Blame Simon Pegg.

Pegg, a geek icon in his own right who has played such iconic roles as Scotty from Star Trek, sounded the alarm about the battle over geek culture's soul in an interview with Radio Times:

It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.

Pegg's statements predictably aggravated io9:

Not to play armchair psychiatrist to Pegg or anything, but this does sound dangerously as though he didn't take anything away from The Avengers, Star Wars, or Star Trek -- and now wonders if he's thrown his whole life away on them. And that he thinks he's been infantilized by his association with the genre.

Pegg provided a thoughtful rebuttal:

One of the things that inspired Jessica and myself, all those years ago, was the unprecedented extension our generation was granted to its youth, in contrast to the previous generation, who seemed to adopt a received notion of maturity a lot sooner. The children of the 70s and 80s were the first generation, for whom it wasn’t imperative to ‘grow up’ immediately after leaving school. Why this happened is a whole other sociological discussion: a rise in the student population, progress in gender equality, the absence of world war; all these things and more contributed to this social evolution.

Pegg illustrates the ingredients necessary to allow geekdom – which is often associated with the luxury to focus on a particular esoteric topic – to flourish. As geek culture expands, refracts, and reflects on itself, it's becoming clear that there’s a darker side to being the popular kid, and it has deep roots in how American pop culture deals with the zeitgeist. Pegg points the finger at consumerism:

In the 18 years since we wrote Spaced, this extended adolescence has been cannily co-opted by market forces, who have identified this relatively new demographic as an incredibly lucrative wellspring of consumerist potential. Suddenly, here was an entire generation crying out for an evolved version of the things they were consuming as children. This demographic is now well and truly serviced in all facets of entertainment and the first and second childhoods have merged into a mainstream phenomenon.

Star Wars’ plot, Pegg explains, roiled with responses to events at the time. The sequels, by degree, have continued to be less about current events and more about themselves. The fringe phenomenon has started to eat itself even as it becomes mainstream. Pegg references Jean Baudrillard’s book, America, describing the infantilization of America but he likely meant Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which uses Disneyland as an example of how hyperreality is a cover for bigger issues:

The Disneyland imaginary is neither true or false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real. Whence the debility, the infantile degeneration of this imaginary. It's meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the "real" world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere, particularly among those adults who go there to act the child in order to foster illusions of their real childishness.

Are Pegg and Baudrillard right? Let's take Star Wars as an example through the lens of the documentary A Galaxy Far, Far Away.
[h=3]Star Wars as Metaphor[/h]
Tariq Jalil, the director and narrator of A Galaxy Far, Far Away, takes us on a journey to understand why Americans were so excited about what amounts to a couple hours of staring at a big screen. He uncovers a couple of truths along the way.

On the negative side, Jalil points out the extravagance of geekdom. Only in America could people huddle together in a crowd, clawing and fighting, to get the first Star Wars action figures. He drives this point home by cutting in scenes of crowds in Kosovo scrambling for food. It seems like a heavy-handed approach, but it's undeniable how visually similar the two scenes are. As one observant Star Wars fan points out, the amount of money and manpower dedicated to providing security, food, transportation, and lodging to millions of Star Wars fans could change the world. But Americans don't do that. Instead, they spend it on a fantasy world...because they can.

If the documentary stopped there, it would be a slam on fandom. But then Jalil asks the tough questions. Many of the kids in the documentary have fathers who are abusive or completely absent, situations where children have no childhood to speak of. These kids like Star Wars so much because they dislike their lives in equal amounts. The plot connects with them in ways that other media can't.

A Galaxy Far, Far Away argues that it’s one thing to engage in a childlike culture as an antidote to adult problems; it’s another to live there permanently. Geekdom’s nature of exclusivity, of being an outcast, of intensely focusing on one thing, often grew out of a response to the unhappy world around us. Flights of fantasy are a coping mechanism, but when they become the reality themselves, they lose some of their power. Which brings us back to Hollywood’s gleeful embrace of geek culture and the ruthless lengths it will go to claim it.
[h=3]Battling for D&D’s Soul[/h]
It’s no secret that marketers “age up” their play as part of a calculated ploy to bring back their audience. The kids who grew up watching Toy Story (1995) were going to college 15 years later when Andy left for college and had to say goodbye to his toys in Toy Story 3 (2010). Children who enjoyed Monsters, Inc. (2001) were just heading off to college themselves 12 years later in the flashback film about the titular characters’ college days in Monsters University (2013). These films are just two examples of the endless prequels, sequels, TV series, and reboots happening to capitalize on our nostalgia.

Why? Because like D&D itself, these movie franchises are brands, and brands are safe. With so much money riding on a film, brands have become exaggerated in importance:

Marketers revere the idea of brands, because a brand means that somebody, somewhere, once bought the thing they're now trying to sell. The Magic 8 Ball (tragically, yes, there is going to be a Magic 8 Ball movie) is a brand because it was a toy. Pirates of the Caribbean is a brand because it was a ride. Harry Potter is a brand because it was a series of books. Jonah Hex is a brand because it was a comic book. (Here lies one fallacy of putting marketers in charge of everything: Sometimes they forget to ask if it's a good brand.) Sequels are brands. Remakes are brands...In the last several years, a new rule of operation has taken over: The movie itself has to be the brand. And because a brand is, by definition, familiar, a brand is also, by definition, not original.

Frank Mentzer, who led the creation of the Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortals (BECMI) D&D ruleset when he was Creative Advisor to the Chairman of the Board at TSR, shared in an interview a dark side to the commercialization that infects everything, including gaming:

More than a trillion dollars has been spent on motion pictures, computer games, and other venues based on the rise of Fantasy entertainment, which in turn was driven by the combination of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. The dark side, however, is that it's all business; you do what sells or you don't survive to make more. The Original game gave us a toolkit to realize our dreams, but this morphed into a money machine of products -- adventures, other accessories, dice, figurines, and more. In the abstract, Roleplaying is a group medium wherein people talk to one another within the framework of their imaginary characters in an imaginary world. This is Storytelling, a pastime dating back to the earliest days of language, codified into a communal form. Unlike most Storytelling, the commercial side has driven the action-adventure approach, neglecting most of the personalities and 'lives' of these imaginary characters. I personally favor the 99% -- the part of the characters and setting that's not involved in combat -- but very little is published for this approach; it doesn't bring in the cash.

[lq]Pop Quiz: Which target audience brings in more movie revenue, college students or adults?[/lq]

The revenue brought in by tabletop games is small in comparison to movies of course. Pop Quiz: Which target audience brings in more movie revenue, college students or adults?

It’s a trick question, because the answer is both:

The rise of marketers has also brought on an obsession with demographics. As anyone in Hollywood will tell you, the American filmgoing populace is divided two ways: by gender and by age. Gender is self-explanatory (usually); the over-under dividing line for age is 25. Naturally, every studio chief dreams of finding a movie like Avatar that reaches all four "quadrants" of the audience: male and female, young and not. But if it can be made for the right price, a two- or even one-quadrant film can be a viable business proposition.

Geekdom provides a wonderful intersection of the young and older, with the potential to bring in all of their accompanying dollars. This is why Marvel has been so successful in bringing superhero movies to life and why Hasbro eagerly seeks to emulate Marvel; Hasbro’s movie-themed toy sales spike whenever a movie is released. Salkowitz explains the differences in geek generations:

Many of us in our 40s have waited patiently to take custody of fan traditions handed down to us by earlier generations. Boomers started young and have held on tightly to the editorships of publications, the organizing committees of big conventions and the nominating boards for major awards. Only this decade have things started to transition. Now it seems that fan culture is skipping a generation, passing directly to younger people with fewer attachments to the past and more interest in connecting fan culture to popular and political culture.

If you’ve been doing the calculus in your head, kids who grew up in the 70s and 80s when Dungeons & Dragons was on the rise are now parents. They are primed, like fans of 80s cartoons, to be marketed to as both older geeks and as parents of geek children. This is the lesson the Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons embraced, as Mike Mearls told me in a 2012 interview when I asked him about bringing kids into the hobby:

The big thing to me is starting with a simple foundation that doesn’t assume many, if any, accessories like miniatures. In my experience, keeping the initial buy-in for D&D low and compact is a big plus for new players. The sooner they start playing D&D after buying that first product, the better it is. Our approach of using a simple foundation plays to that type of gamer while also making it easier for experienced DMs to tailor their campaigns.

D&D's crossover potential between the two "quadrants" is huge. This is why rights to a future Dungeons & Dragons movie set off an epic legal battle between media giants. They aren’t fighting over the rights to the film; they’re fighting over the keys to our nostalgia.
[h=3]Pixels Eat the World[/h]
D&D isn't the only geek icon that Hollywood is eager to exploit. There’s a wave of all kinds of 80s-style gaming, led by Minecraft which made blocky pixels cool again. My eight-year-old son is enamored with all things pixel, and the media hype machine is eager to comply. Kickstarter is teeming with pixel- and retro- themed games in all forms, be it video game, card game, or board game.

On the movie front, the decay of all things geek has already started. For every excellent Wreck-It Ralph there’s Pixels. MovieBob’s foul-mouthed and NSFW rant about Pixels may be more entertaining the movie itself.

Mentzer summed up the flaws of a glossed-over approach to nostalgia that doesn't get the details right:

Lesson #2 is the same that the film industry is learning; flash doesn't last. Films became enamored with computer-generated special effects, then the audiences became inured to it, and the studios are back to the search for good stories; CG animation must be state-of-the-art but can't be the only attraction. Video games must similarly have a solid basis in story and other elements, leaving the CG as a required component but of lesser importance.

Books aren’t immune either. Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is about a dystopian future where the Earth has run out of food and space and the poor turn to a virtual world called OASIS for relief. The creator of OASIS, James Halliday, is a cross between Richard Garriot (creator of Ultima) and Steve Jobs (of Apple fame) who seeded OASIS with 1980s esoterica from music to video games to movies. When he finally dies, Halliday wills his billion dollar fortune to the first person to beat a variety of quests to find his "easter egg." An entire sub-culture evolves to meet the challenge, called gunters (abbreviated from "egg hunters"), whose archrivals are IOI, a corporate organization that will stop at nothing to get the egg first, win the game, and make OASIS a pay service only accessible to the rich. It's every man for himself against the Man himself.

Ready Player One is as much a love story as it is a retrospective on what made the 80s so much fun: Pac Man, Tetris, The Tomb of Horrors, Wargames, Godzilla, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Zork, Adventure,'s all here, waiting to be remembered by those of us old enough to care and rediscovered by those too young to experience it. But for a book all about the geeky details of 80s trivia, it occasionally gets it wrong. On the world of Gygax (ahem) our hero must survive The Tomb of Horrors, and he beats the dungeon by reading the original module. He didn't read it too closely however, or he would have been confused by how a disembodied demi-lich like Acererak could challenge him to a game of Joust.

And that’s the thing about Ready Player One. It’s a little too slick for its own good. The book is written like a movie that glosses over the details in the spirit of a rousing tale. The conclusion, which involves a massive battle between IOI, gunters, and our heroes, is so contrived to strain even virtual credibility. For geeks who lived through the 80s, the book is part of a corporate full-press to capture our geek dollars.

If Ready Player One’s ready-made marketability to 80s nostalgia wasn’t clear from a quick read, the movie rights to Ready Player One were optioned (2010) before the book was even published (2011). Spielberg is attached to produce it. Here's hoping it's good; if not, MovieBob will likely have a thing or two to say about it.
[h=3]Maximum Geek[/h]
When will we know we hit maximum geek? We may be there already. Geekdom cannot stand in the spotlight for long without turning inward, which is why politics have invaded our gamer discussions, cosplay has seeped into our politics, and comics are flashpoints for diversity. Salkowitz pointed out how geekdom's newfound popularity has a dark side:

The greatest damage comes when media outlets spot a skirmish taking place in a subculture they already consider kind of weird (though photogenic) anyway. The identity politics fights inside fandom resemble those taking place elsewhere in society, and as every media outlet knows, conflict sells. Old establishment media would not ordinarily deign to take notice of these kinds of fights, but we’re in an environment now where lots of new outlets are fighting for eyeballs. Nerd fights make great copy, especially when you can get non-nerds riled up by posing the intramural fandom fight in the context of Red versus Blue tribalism.

That’s a lot of adult discussions about child-like things, so maybe geekdom's growing pains are part of being embraced by the mainstream. Hollywood clearly thinks the geek well still remains untapped, waging lawsuits over the mere concept of a movie that doesn’t exist yet and buying the film rights to a book before it was even published.

In some ways the role-playing hobby has been insulated from the massive success that comics are currently experiencing, no doubt in part due to the poor track record of previous D&D films. If the upcoming Forgotten Realms-themed Dungeons & Dragons film and Ready Player One are Pixels-level bad, we can continue to safely enjoy our geekdom, confident that ours is a niche hobby enjoyed by a select few.

But what if it isn’t? We may end up pining for the days when "our" movies were relegated to the Syfy Channel’s late night programming.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Good thought process, but I wonder if it will ever truly wane? Technology will continue to progress at a very rapid rate and that culture of tech will remain a fairly constant thing unless some sort of 'back tech' or 'unplugged' movement becomes the rage or norm. We are almost getting to a point where I could see a rebellion happening against technology advances because of the progressively invasive way it is insinuating itself into our daily living.

My nostalgia does get ramped up when I see new versions of old favorites, but I am often left wanting that 'taste of new' that will never happen again and it ends up jading me in a way against other 'retro' products that come out.

Von Ether

This is part of that irony with geek cultural on a high is that while for-profit con are over flowing, the old SF clubs are dying.

And I do believe the reins are skipping a generation as the Boomers are handing it off to their Melinnial kids and grand kids.

Mr. Flibble

This editorial makes me wish the D&D movie sucks!

Considering that...

  1. All earlier attempts at a D&D movie have resembled a vampire (first they bit and then they sucked), and that...
  2. Fantasy movies on the whole have a long history of significant sucktitude...
I think you stand a better than even chance of seeing that wish come true.


This is part of that irony with geek cultural on a high is that while for-profit con are over flowing, the old SF clubs are dying.

And I do believe the reins are skipping a generation as the Boomers are handing it off to their Millennial kids and grand kids.

Clubs how? If you mean the meeting face-to-face clubs, those are slowly morphing into online clubs as folks realize they can go online to do the same thing instead of across town. It also lets them game with folks that live in other countries. It isn't perfect yet, but with online tabletops gaining some traction it is becoming a bit better.

How are the reins skipping a generation? We have tons of 30 something authors out there who are the kids of the boomers?


Mod Squad
Staff member
Good thought process, but I wonder if it will ever truly wane? Technology will continue to progress at a very rapid rate and that culture of tech will remain a fairly constant thing...

The "culture of tech" will by no means stay a constant thing.

Why? Well, as tech becomes more and more ubiquitous, it ceases to be different. It will stop being a point over which there's a discontinuity between peoples. It used to be that the tech workplace was geek haven, but as more and more people get involved in producing it, the tech workplace will be come a standard office (where, for example, engineers will spend more time discussing sports than they do traditionally "geeky" things). Tech will slowly cease being a cultural-geek-only place. Being involved in tech will cease to be (is already ceasing to be) an indicator that one is "geeky", in the cultural sense, as many folks in tech will not otherwise be geeks.

A friend of mine was recently talking a bout how he was the sole RPG player he could find in a 50+ people engineering department!

I think the current interest in sci-fi and fantasy movies will wane, just as the past had waves of mystery/gumshoe films, and Westerns. Genres rise and fall, folks.

Von Ether

Clubs how? If you mean the meeting face-to-face clubs, those are slowly morphing into online clubs as folks realize they can go online to do the same thing instead of across town. It also lets them game with folks that live in other countries. It isn't perfect yet, but with online tabletops gaining some traction it is becoming a bit better.

How are the reins skipping a generation? We have tons of 30 something authors out there who are the kids of the boomers?

An online "club" isn't the same as a pot luck and chatting with people who become real life friends that you see every month.

As for the other comment, my apologies for being vague. I was talking about the con scene, where I'm seeing either a lot of retiring boomers or younger folks as compared to the middle aged crowd. It's like grandma and the kids are at the con, Mom and Dad are just vegging at home.


Community Supporter
I think the Ready Player One movie is going to infuriate people on an unprecedented level. That's just a vibe I'm getting. I hope I'm wrong.

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